Category Archives: non-features-2017

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Growing up and getting out

I was 12 the first time I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sitting in my grandparents’ living room, my Grampy asked if I had seen the film. I answered with a disinterested “No” and turned back to my daydreaming. Before I could protest, my grandparents had put the DVD in and pressed play. I was stuck — an afternoon with an old movie and older people.

I’m happy to say that at the end of the 103 minutes, I had fallen in love with the movie. Ferris Bueller was simply fantastic, an unabashedly confident and brazenly carefree person who acted first and thought second. He was everything I wanted to be.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” is a well-known and well-loved quote from the movie.

My favourite, though, comes from the beginning of the film: “A person should not believe in an -ism. He should believe in himself.” For some reason, that offhand comment made by a charming, cocky, fictional kid resonated with me.

I had a difficult time believing in myself up until that point in my life. As hard as I tried to be like Bueller, I still found it difficult to muster the courage to believe in myself, which, in turn, had a detrimental effect on my wellbeing.

For as long as I can remember, I had a problem with loneliness. Up to and including twelfth grade, I would usually eat alone at school, preferring the company of my thoughts to my peers. When I did venture out to try and make friends, I was met with skepticism and faced almost unbearable teasing.

At an early age, I had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, which basically means that if I see a group of people whispering, I immediately jump to the conclusion that they are talking about me. This was pure torture for a kid who didn’t really have any friends as it was.

There was one incident that happened during a lunch break in fourth grade. I was sitting alone near the baseball diamond, which was used for kickball mostly, when I looked up to see a group of maybe 10 of my classmates watching me from the opposite side of the field. I paid them no mind. I got up from my spot and walked around for a while, kicking whatever pine cones I could find and minding my own business. I remember turning around to see an even larger group of students following me, which seemed suspicious and, quite frankly, scared me to death.

My pace quickened, as did my classmates’, until I found myself trapped between two portables with no exit. As my peers closed in, I frantically searched for an escape, then sat down and began to cry, accepting the fact that I was about to get my ass kicked — I was trapped.

I kept telling myself all those years that I would get out someday, but time and time again, every minor success was followed by an epic letdown. It seemed that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, it was never enough and I would always be the lonely, weird kid that couldn’t talk to anybody, nicknamed ‘spaz’ for good measure.

I couldn’t believe in anything, let alone myself. That dream of being charming and too cocky for my own good, like Bueller, faded and died.

It took a few more years for things to start getting better. Thanks to puberty and a mother who pushed me to play sports and grow big, I wasn’t bullied as often, but I still felt alone. I felt like I still wasn’t good enough to have friends and maybe it wasn’t worth the effort to try to be happy or successful, because it was all going to fall apart anyway.

I felt like Cameron Frye, Bueller’s best friend, who just needed a push from his best friend to get him out of his own head. Only, I didn’t have a best friend.

At my lowest points, I was crushed and broken ­— a shell of the person I wished I could be. With no friends, no motivation, and an ego in constant flux, I pondered my existence, waiting for something to change.

Spending the time and making the effort to understand my mental health helped me overcome my fear of being alone. I decided to improve myself and not let my anxiety get the best of me anymore. Nobody needed to help me — I could be my own Bueller.

It has taken some time, but I can safely say that I’ve Bueller-ified myself to the point where I’m proud of who I am. I’m an unabashedly confident, brazenly carefree person. I pursue my dreams with unbridled positivity and determination.

I accept myself, as well as others, with open arms. I am no longer afraid to let people in, and I know now that I am worthy of having friends.

I believe in myself.

Sure, there are definitely days where I feel alone. There are times when I revert back to the kid I once was, scared of what people may think of me — but that can be a good reminder. Without that kid, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Without those experiences, I don’t think I could have made it to the point where I believe in myself wholeheartedly. I am comfortable with feeling alone at times, but I truly know that I’m not.

Best of luck

I am short. If I were one or two inches shorter and lived in the USA, my height would fall within the Little People of America’s description of dwarfism.

If you asked me why I am vertically challenged, I would talk about genetics and how most women in my family are short.

If you asked my grandmother why I am short, however, she would give you an entirely different answer. According to her, my height was caused by someone hopping over my legs when I was lying down as a child, stunting my growth.

There is no rhyme nor reason to her belief — or, as I would call it, ‘superstition.’ My grandmother has never given me an explanation as to why or how this could be true, yet she refuses to believe anything else.

A superstition is a belief that a certain action or practice leads to a particular consequence by means of supernatural forces.

Historically, superstition has been associated with religion. Even though superstitions sometimes stem from religious stories — such as biblical theories surrounding the number 13 — they are often cultural by-products passed down from generation to generation until they become so deeply ingrained that no one questions why they exist anymore.

So why should my grandmother believe anything else, when her culture firmly trusts and reinforces these superstitious beliefs?

After all, superstitions exist all around the world. My grandmother would be glad to know that it isn’t just people in Pakistan who believe that jumping over someone’s legs stunts their growth. People in South Korea, Japan, and Turkey share her belief.

Also, people in South Korea and Japan believe that writing someone’s name in red ink is considered a kiss of death.

The number four is fervently avoided in many East Asian countries. This is due to it being nearly homophonous with the Chinese word for death. Similarly, Italian people are wary of the number 17, since its roman numerals, XVII, can be rearranged to VIXI, which implies death.

In Pakistan, the left eye twitching can be an omen of bad luck, whereas an itchy right palm foreshadows money in the near future, but the palm cannot be scratched on purpose. In Brazil, letting a bag hit the floor means losing money.

Anyone debating eating the last slice of pizza or swiping the last cookie should just go ahead and grab it — eating the last piece of food is said to bring good luck in Thailand.

If it is ever night and you are exhausted, but your parents are telling you to clean up, tell them that sweeping at night is inauspicious, especially in India and in Turkey, as it will deter the goddess of luck or angels from visiting you.

These superstitions will likely seem strange to any who trusts scientific evidence. However, you need only go into an apartment building and look for the missing thirteenth floor or take in the abundance of beards among male athletes during playoff season to realize the ubiquity of superstitions present in our lives.

There is nothing wrong with being superstitious. Most of us possess personal rituals or talismans in the form of lucky t-shirts, special underwear, or pieces of jewelry that we utilize before important events in our life.

Primarily, we utilize superstitions because they give us some semblance of control. They allow us to fill in and explain the gaps of the sometimes inexplicable events in our life. Superstitions can also provide comfort; following a certain ritual or practice gives us a sense of routine. Lastly, superstitions create a sense of community; it is fun to practice and pass down traditions, credulous or otherwise, that have been in your family, culture, or country for years.

However, when we start believing superstitious rituals and talismans are the only way we will succeed in life, things start going south. It is not healthy to be entirely dependent on
rituals and talismans, because the absence of them may lead to panic, paranoia, and stress.

When superstitions start dictating every aspect of our lives — like not buying something that has the number four written on it or going back home because a cat crossed the path —
perhaps it is time to distance ourselves from them.

And if you still can’t break free of your superstitions, you should try and try again — remember, third time’s the charm.

Outside the circle

February 12, 2017 was a Sunday. The roads were treacherous and the sidewalk was slippery. There was a snowstorm; the kind that encourages most people to stay in their homes, but that didn’t stop over 100 people from visiting U of T to talk about anything other than God.

The first gathering — service, meeting, it’s still not decided what to call it — of the Toronto chapter of the Oasis network was held in the Koffler House Multi-Faith Centre. The Oasis network, established in the US, provides a community similar to that of a church or a mosque for the non-religious, the secular, the skeptical, and the curious.

“Whether you are continuing within religion, or if you don’t identify with a religion, or if you don’t follow any religion or belief structure, it’s irrelevant. What we’re coming together to do is to focus on our core values and build our community,” explained Eve Casavant, one of the chapter’s organizers.

The core values Casavant references are authoritative: people are more important than beliefs; reality is known through reason; meaning comes from making a difference; human hands solve human problems; and people must be accepting to be accepted.

These values drew many to fill the Multi-Faith Centre, a room with wood-panelled walls and a ceiling that looks like marble. Minutes before the meeting, a bluegrass musician played his banjo, mothers helped young children into seats, and people pecked on an array of snacks at the back of the room. The audience demographic was skewed towards those white and older, but people of several races and ages were also in the crowd.

The banjo stopped playing, and the meeting began. A large projector displayed the Oasis logo.

Gretta Vosper is another organizer who helped bring Oasis to Toronto. The spectacled woman with short grey hair addressed the group; she explained why she was there, thanked the volunteers who made the event possible, and expressed the importance of the newfound community.

“People came from up to three hours away in one of the worst snowstorms of the year to come and talk about how isolated they felt, because whether they were members of a church, or they couldn’t find a church to go to, they were constantly outside the circle of belief. You are all outside that circle in one way or another,” said Vosper, who understands being outside of the circle very well.

An atheist church minister

Vosper is a minister at the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Vosper became the subject of national headlines after she publicly identified herself as an atheist, despite her position with the Church. She does not believe in a literal interpretation of God.

“My beliefs were formed in the United Church. So, when I was in Sunday school, I was taught about a God that was really love,” explained Vosper. “It wasn’t a being that I needed to obey or that was watching me all the time. The God that I was taught about was about what we needed to live out in the world.”

These beliefs continued to manifest during her years at Queen’s Theological College. “We were invited to explore the Bible as it were written by humans, for humans, for very human reasons, to explore the variety of ways that people had struggled with the concept of God and articulated that,” she said. “And liberal theologians for decades and decades have been talking about God as a human concept or a construct of some kind of or another.”

Initially, Vosper called herself a ‘non-theist’ but took on the atheist label in 2013. At the time, she wanted to become more explicit about her beliefs and join in solidarity with persecuted atheists in other countries.

“We’re taught to speak about what we believe in in softer terms. In my first book, I refer to myself as a non-theist. In my second book, I realized that non-theist didn’t really cut it because some people called themselves non-theist even though they had a supernatural idea,” said Vosper.

“The short of it is, when authors started getting killed by machetes in Bangladesh because they were being called atheists, I had to take a look at my beliefs and said, ‘Well, my beliefs are consistent with atheistic beliefs, so in order to express solidarity, I’m gonna take that label,’” she said.

Vosper’s church, West Hill United Church in Scarborough, is also quite secular. She speaks every Sunday — a commitment that mostly prevents her from taking part in Oasis meetings — and calls her talks ‘perspectives’, rather than ‘sermons’.

“You don’t hear us read from the Bible very often,” said Vosper. “You don’t hear me talk about Jesus as a moral standard and you don’t hear the word God shared regularly, but we still talk about values, a commitment to live.”

It is unclear how many clergy within the United Church have similar views, but Vosper claims that such interpretations of God and the Bible are common.

“If you go into any United Church congregation and many other liberal denominations… in Canada, and you listened to a service, you would hear language that [refers] to a pre-Copernican order of the universe, with heaven and earth and hell,” she explained.

Vosper continued, “You would hear about the divine Son of God through whom we are saved. You would hear about a God who was a supernatural God, who listens to our prayers and acts on our behalf, but then if you sit down on Tuesday morning and had coffee with the person who led that service and asked them if they actually believed in all of those things, I think you would get a very, very different answer.”

Vosper’s position as minister despite her atheistic views, proved to be quite controversial in the United Church. A review committee within the Toronto Conference of the United Church recommended defrocking Vosper in a report released September 2016, stating, “In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.”

The findings were subsequently presented to the sub-executive committee of the Toronto Conference, who asked the United Church’s general council to conduct a hearing about defrocking Vosper and placing her on the church’s Discontinued Service List. It is unclear when the general council will make its final decision.

Setting the stage for Oasis

Vosper’s involvement with Oasis began in 2015, at which point she was already looking into creating a community like West Hill in the downtown core.

“We have a lot of people who travel a lot of distance to come to West Hill, so in 2014, we wanted to start a community on the west side of the city and we did that. They meet monthly. In 2015, we wanted to start in the community in the core of the city, but we realized that we needed to have more than monthly gatherings,” Vosper explained.

Much like a church, Oasis meets on Sunday mornings, despite attempts from organizers to meet at a different time.

“The first time we started talking about when it would be, people said, ‘Anything but Sunday morning! I just want to sleep in and have my coffee.’” Vosper explained. “But as we started talking about time, it became apparent that if you want to have children involved, you can’t do anything in the evening. That took all the evenings out. The only mornings are Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings. Well, nobody wanted it to be Saturday morning. So, it ended up on Sunday morning.”

Vosper said that she was looking for an organizational model that wouldn’t focus on a single leader. Her search led her to Oasis, a pre-existing network of secular congregations located in several US cities.

Vosper expects religious discussions at Oasis to be “limited” and notes that it will not be an “atheist” community. “There may be groups that form that want to have conversations about religion,” she said. “There may be groups that form for people who have left a fundamentalist religion and they’re trying to recover from the realities of that.”

Raihan Abir, an atheist writer from Bangladesh, fits this description. Although he wore a smile for most of the day, he had many difficult stories to tell.

Abir came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2015 and is now a permanent resident, living with his wife and daughter in Toronto. His journey to Canada was necessitated by his beliefs, which put his life at risk in Bangladesh. Atheist thinkers like Abir are common targets for violent religious extremists.

“Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, they established themselves in 2012 with the hope in mind that they would convert the whole Indian subcontinent including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, this whole region,” Abir explained. “To do that, Al Qaeda’s strategy is [that] they will attack people who are generally seen as a taboo, like, they will attack atheists, gays. They will attack any secular activist.”

Abir continued, “[Al-Qaeda’s] greatest enemy is the United States. It’s not right now, but when they started, their greatest enemy was the United States. So they think [of us] as Western agents who are polluting Islam. So they think of us as anti-Islamic spies from the West. And with that accusation, they killed us.”

Many of Abir’s friends and colleagues were killed by Al-Qaeda for blogging about atheism. Abir himself was attacked. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was largely indifferent to such attacks, criticizing atheists for writing “pornography.” The Islamic State (IS) would join Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh soon after.

“IS started their operation in 2014 in Bangladesh because they started out around that time in Syria as well,” said Abir. “And they also wanted to make the whole Indian subcontinent as an Islamic state. Same as Al Qaeda. And they have India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, that region, the whole region.”

The two groups share the same mission but employ different tactics.

“IS wasn’t actually making any list of atheist bloggers. They still hate us, but they’re kind of [an] authoritarian movement,” he continued. “On the other hand Al-Qaeda is a populist movement. So that’s the difference between them. So the government is  very hard on IS, but very soft on Al-Qaeda.”

Abir grew up in a Muslim family, but found other worldviews and perspectives online.

“When I first started blogging in 2007, in a post people were mocking Allah. And I thought ‘Whoa, you can mock Allah?’” Abir said. “So literally I thought that you can’t mock Allah before something bad will happen… So many religions had that capability of making people think this way. But when you just say, ‘Well, we didn’t come from Adam and Eve,’ many people say ‘Really?’… I try to do that, feeling that it’s my responsibility.”

Abir is a fan of ‘New Atheists’ like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, all of whom have gained massive followings for criticizing and advocating against religious ideas and supernatural beliefs.

On its online FAQ page, Oasis notes that it is not a place to “denigrate” religion. “I have an incredible amount of respect for many religious people,” said Vosper. “If someone is going to use their [religious] beliefs to get in the way of someone else’s human rights, then I’m going to get in the way of them, opposing them.”

In time, Oasis may provide a platform for Abir’s ideas to challenge Vosper’s and vice versa, but the first gathering had little to do with religion. Rick Miller, a playwright who resembles famous American preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen, delivered a talk called “The Architecture of Creativity.” He has taught a class at U of T based on this concept.

“If we can get our butts out of bed on a Sunday morning, it’s always valuable to see yourself amongst a community of people who don’t so much share similar beliefs but [are] at least on a journey of trying to expand and understand each other a little bit better and that’s what I feel here,” said Miller. “These are inquisitive people. They’re not just here accepting anything by rote.”

Exploiting expectations

The scope of treatment options being researched or offered by doctors in 2017 is baffling. While in vitro fertilization procedures shook the consciences of many when they were introduced in the late 1970s, the extent to which these procedures intervene with natural human systems seems innocuous compared to today’s nascent medical controversies — gene editing and the use of technology to compensate for failing organs, to name a couple.

Given the apparent omnipotence of modern health care professionals, it would be easy to write off less tangible treatments, especially those that are not well understood.

The ‘placebo effect’ may be one of those elusive treatments.

In medicine, a placebo may be used in place of a drug or procedure. It has no direct therapeutic effect on an illness but can still cause a patient to feel better. People expect doctors to prescribe treatment that will cure them and their expectations alone result in the feeling of being cured — this is known as the placebo effect.

The placebo effect demonstrates how our expectations can literally change how we experience the world. The placebo effect exploits this belief to allow us to subconsciously change our physical and mental interior worlds using our faith in medicine and healthcare providers.

Mind over matter?

The power of our minds is immense. Studies on the placebo effect show how we enable sugar pills, sham surgeries, and homeopathic medicine to ‘cure’ us.

Acupuncture, for example, may rely entirely on the placebo effect, as the majority of research on the topic has shown that acupuncture has no specific restorative ability. By comparing results from participants who went through acupuncture and those who went through simulated acupuncture, researchers have concluded that the physical relief acquired from acupuncture is based on the belief the participants had in its ability.

This, of course, does not invalidate the fact that patients felt better after treatment — simulated or real — and many continue to seek out acupuncture to treat a wide variety of ailments. Perhaps, then, the placebo effect is strong enough to sustain entire industries.

Though this may be true, Ted Kaptchuk, a leader in placebo effect research and Director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, has cautioned that you can’t just “think yourself better.”

Instead, Kaptchuk’s research shows that the placebo effect is real in a biological sense, and it can also be considered a treatment of its own.

The neurological basis for the placebo effect is still being tested. Current research shows that the placebo effect can measurably change neurotransmitters and other biological conditions, such as heart rate and blood pressure, though only so much as medication is capable of impacting these factors.

One study by Kaptchuk gave participants either a placebo marked as a drug or a medically active drug marked as a placebo. The placebo did significantly better than the active drug in mitigating the symptoms of a migraine according to patient reports.

Another study was conducted by Dr. Michael E. Wechsler, Kaptchuk, and other scientists on asthma medication and placebos. Two placebo trials showed equal benefits in self-reported outcomes as the medicinally-active drug, and all three trials showed more improvement with the use of the placebo compared to no treatment. Though the two placebos caused no improvement in the presence of the chemical cue, the placebo patients felt equally improved, which is an incredible reaction.

The most important factor in these studies is that the patients were primed beforehand into thinking the placebos were effective.

The priming effect occurs when people are exposed to positive or negative stimuli before experiencing an unrelated situation. The formerly presented stimuli change the way the latter situation is perceived, even if the two are unrelated.

Many studies on this topic have come to the same conclusion: people’s reaction to the world can be changed completely to match the tone of the original stimuli. Our mind creates the world we inhabit based on the sensations and memories it has available.

Ethical controversies

Placebos have been used both in experimental trials and clinical practice. While their use in experimental science is unquestionable, the ethics of their use in clinical practice is dubious. Physicians swear to cure and provide medicine for illness and disease. Placebos do not ‘work’ insofar as they do not actually cure.

Patients feeling better but not biologically recovering is a major point of contention when it comes to placebo as a medicinal tool. Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired physician, commented on the asthma research by Wechsler and Kaptchuk for The Atlantic: “Asthma can be fatal. If the patient’s lung function is getting worse but a placebo makes them feel better, they might delay treatment until it is too late.”

Results of studies considering the neurological and biological components of the placebo effect show that changes in actual symptoms and physiological causes of the illness are very minor or the variations seen are to be expected from the sickness. This means that, even if patients feel better, they might not actually be getting better. The purpose of medicine is to heal and cure, and many believe that prescribing ‘medicine’ which doesn’t do so is unethical.

A major problem in the practical use of placebos has to do with the types of patients that are more likely to be prescribed placebos. Studies have shown that physicians tend to underestimate the level of pain and intensity of symptoms in women and people of colour; doctors are more likely to under-treat these populations. Therefore, should the placebo effect be accepted in mainstream medical practice, it may only further jeopardize already vulnerable members of society.

Doctor-patient relationships

Placebos are also controversial for the way they necessitate deception in the patient-doctor relationship. Dr. David Gorski is a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and a faculty member at Wayne State University who doesn’t believe in using placebos.

In an essay for Science Based Medicine, Gorski critiques the ethics and healing capabilities of the placebo: “Basically, in medicine it is very unethical to lie to patients, and inducing placebo effects requires lying to patients.”

The doctor-patient relationship is a cornerstone of medicine; trust and understanding needs to be present on both sides for the patient to get appropriate treatment. When a doctor lies, they reduce trust in them and in the entire institution of medicine.

What is more, science has shown a positive correlation between the amount of information a patient has of the treatment and their level of recovery. A patient who has all the information about their condition and treatment may be in a much better situation to recover.

The modern version of the Hippocratic Oath includes the following line: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” In other words, it is part of a doctor’s job to provide warmth and demonstrate empathy to the patient. Showing empathy leads to reassurance and creating a state where the patient believes that they can get better, which is where the placebo effect can be most useful.

Placebos are used to pacify — to treat mild or psychosomatic symptoms. Medical conditions such as broken bones, heart disease, and cancer will not heal themselves, no matter what we believe. Yet our minds still play a role — it has been shown that even the medications for these sicknesses work better when the patient has a better understanding or trust in the treatment and the physician administering it.

Placebo in practice

Some nations and medical associations have guidelines that consider placebos unethical. The Canadian Medical Association, however, does not provide guidelines for the use of placebos in clinical practice. The lack of regulation allows them to be used by physicians.

Regardless of the ethical concerns, some reports have indicated that around 20 per cent of Canadian doctors in some disciplines prescribe placebos. Between 17–80 per cent of doctors from other nations use them. These statistics show that, whatever moral concerns about placebos there are, at least some medical professionals consider the practice useful.

Kaptchuk conducted a study on patients with irritable bowel syndrome, with three treatment groups. Group One had no treatment, Group Two had treatment with a distant, quiet acupuncture practitioner, and Group Three had treatment with a warm and friendly practitioner. The most important factor in patient relief turned out to be the interaction between the patients and practitioners. Group Three had significantly higher improvement rates at 62 per cent, compared to 28 per cent and 44 per cent for Group One and Group Two, respectively.

While the methodology of placebo studies is tricky, Kaptchuk’s study emphasizes that when it comes to the power of the placebo effect, its greatest strength lies in the relationship between doctor and patient, not necessarily in the patient and treatment. As Hall put it, “It’s not just about curing; it’s about caring and comforting when we can’t cure.”

Likes can be deceiving

It is both satisfying and shameful when I first meet someone in real life whose name, dog’s name, and favourite coffee shop I already know from too many hours spent on the Instagram Explore tab:

“Hey, nice to meet you! My name’s Annie.”

“Hi, I’m Laura, nice to meet you. I think we have the same kind of dog!”

Meeting people in the flesh for the first time when you are already familiar with their online persona can reveal how social media identities can be, in many ways, disconnected from reality. As everyday users of social media platforms, we are participants in this — our posts are all carefully curated, contrived, and filtered.

We know our social media profiles are not representative of the entirety of our life experience, but it doesn’t matter because they provide us with a place to express the parts of our identities that we don’t always nurture. They also provide a place for the parts of our identity that we are proud to share.

Our posts are dictated by the way we wish to interact with the world around us, rather than the way we actually do. In effect, they are the means through which we attempt to secure agency over how we want to connect with the world.

We know that we shouldn’t believe everything we see on Instagram because ‘that’s not actually what so-and-so looks like in real life,’ or ‘those pictures are all from the same vacation they went on two years ago.’ Yet, to some extent, we believe it anyway.

It is no longer just images of models or celebrities that are distorted on social media. We all create distorted, ideal online worlds that conceal the less desirable aspects of our everyday lives. And whether we engage with these platforms by tapping ‘Like’ or ‘Follow,’ sharing with our friends, or dwelling in jealousy or self-doubt, we buy in.

Social media users share the better moments in life and omit the unpleasant ones. As a result, they offer incomplete, deceptive representations of reality. We post a fairy-tale account of girls’ night, but leave out the part where we left the bar with smeared makeup and a missing earring. We share a gorgeous view from our picturesque weekend escape, but leave out the part where we got into a fight that ruined the whole trip. Naturally, people have caught on to this disconnect between social media and real life, and some of them are cleverly shedding light on the topic.

In 2014, 25-year-old Dutch student Zilla van den Born deceived her friends and family into thinking she was on an exotic five-week vacation in South East Asia. In reality, she was at home in Amsterdam using Photoshop to create impressively manipulated images before sharing them on Facebook. Throughout the five weeks, her profile featured pictures of her snorkelling, walking along tropical beaches, visiting temples, and eating ‘local’ food. Van den Born constructed the elaborate project to show how easy it is to manipulate your personal narrative in the sphere of social media.

Amalia Ulman’s selfie-based Instagram artwork Excellences & Perfections sought to prove a similar point. For five months, she staged a digital performance and embodied a fake narrative by posting images of herself inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online. Her deceptive portrayal gained her almost 90,000 followers who bought into her luxurious lifestyle and racy photos. Ulman’s ultimate goal was to prove that femininity, among many other things online, is merely a performance.

Our representations of life on social media are, of course, not always as staged as van den Born and Ulman’s projects were. Still, it’s not hard to imagine why we would consciously cling to perfectly altered portrayals, given the messy, unfiltered, and frequently disappointing state of real life affairs.

Regardless, manipulating reality can be dangerous. Numerous research studies have investigated the potential dangers associated with social media. For example, especially when it comes to young people, heavy social media usage has been linked to poor mental health. The negative effect of social media on mental health is inextricably connected to its highly convincing and all-consuming character.

Researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) indicated that young people who engage with social media for more than two hours a day are far more likely to rate their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor,’ in comparison to occasional users.

Another study by Lancaster University that analyzed the relationship between social media and mental health found that people who compared themselves with others online were more likely to feel depressed; the same result was observed in those who spent extended amounts of time thinking about what they had seen online.

Separate research from scholars at Germany’s Technische Universität Darmstadt and Switzerland’s Universität Bern in collaboration with UBC’s Sauder School of Business, shows that social media interactions which involve users comparing themselves to others lead to jealousy and bitterness, which can ultimately result in depressive symptoms and anxiety.

These dangers are real even though the flawless lives we follow on Instagram are not.

This powerfully persuasive character of social media is likely why so many people take ‘breaks’ from Instagram or deactivate their accounts entirely. The reasons as to why are familiar to many of us: ‘I was spending too much time on it,’ ‘it was making me too angry,’ or ‘it was distracting me too much,’ for example.

In the case of van den Born and Ulman’s pursuits, it is evident that awareness of the distorted quality of social media isn’t always enough to stop us from falling into its traps. In turn, we can end up engaging in self-deception.

Social media can intensify the problem of self-deception by allowing us to ignore or minimize the aspects of our lives that we are less comfortable expressing. When social media allows us to deceive ourselves, our perception of reality may become blurred, which may then manifest in harmful real life effects.

Although we have an impulse to deceive and be deceived on social media, we mostly do so without malice and for understandable reasons. Suffice it to say, it is very hard to imagine a version of social media that is in no way distorted.

Evidently, when it comes to how we represent ourselves online, we rely on some element of picking and choosing which moments to share. However, it is clear that we cannot escape the consequences in real life no matter how much time we spend online.

Etiquette Squirrel

Dear Etiquette Squirrel,

I love my family — for the most part — but there’s just one thing they do that really gets to me. How do I get my family members to stop cutting open resealable packaging? I’ve tried showing them the ways of the zipper seal to no avail. It’s the best thing since sliced bread though. I just don’t get it. Please help!

— Broken Freshness Seal

Dear Broken,

Some people will simply sit back and watch the world burn. Or rather, they will watch the world mould and rot and become inedible. I suggest that you eat all the food before they have a chance to let it rot, and then they’ll go hungry next time they open the fridge. That’ll teach them about misusing resealable packaging in the future.

Dear Etiquette Squirrel,

A squirrel has been secretly living somewhere at The Varsity headquarters since the beginning of the year. We thought it died at one point, but it seems to have made a remarkable recovery and now sporadically roams the design office. How do we get it out? Unless… is that you?

— Concerned About Asbestos

Dear Concerned,

No, it isn’t me, as I live in a rather well-decorated elm tree on Sussex Avenue, but I do apologize for the situation nonetheless. Unfortunately, you have my cousin Ricky staying with you. I told him once that I did some writing for The Varsity, and as I was explaining how warm the offices are, he bolted. I should have known he would be squatting with you fine folks.

Next time I see him I’ll give him a talking to, but maybe he just wanted to crack a story? Please don’t judge all of us squirrels against Ricky’s annoying tactics!

Hello Etiquette Squirrel,

There is a boy who is breadcrumbing me. How can I throw his breadcrumbs right back at him? I want to coat him in his own breadcrumbs like Panko! Please help me pull off my master plan.

— Master Chef

Dear Chef,

After my extensive research, I think breadcrumbing means that he is leading you on? If so, he’s completely nuts if he doesn’t go for you. I recommend that you don’t give him the time of day. He doesn’t deserve you, and you don’t deserve that kind of treatment. If he’s actually a good guy, he’ll come around and show himself to you.

Promiscuous Squirrel,

Wherever you are

I’m all alone

And it’s you that I want.

— Nelly Furtado ft. Timbaland circa. 2006

Dear Nelly Furtado ft. Timbaland,

Sorry, I’m already taken.

Leafs Nation

After an impressive performance in the 1966-67 NHL season, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Larry Hillman sought a modest increase on his yearly salary. He had been earning around $15,000 at the time, but knowing that many of his teammates made significantly more, Hillman asked for no less than a $5,000 salary increase given his valuable assistance in the Leafs’ latest Stanley Cup victory.

The Leafs’ General Manager at the time, Punch Imlach, a scrappy former hockey player and WWII veteran, countered Hillman’s request and offered $19,000 instead. When Hillman declined, Imlach increased his offer to $19,500, but began deducting $100 from Hillman’s pay for every day he didn’t sign. Hillman eventually caved to the offer, but by then had lost $2,400.

Humiliated by Imlach’s negotiation tactics, Hillman left the team 55 games later to join the Minnesota North Stars, but not before bestowing a curse upon the Leafs now known as the Hillman Hex. After the way they treated him, Hillman swore, the Leafs would never win a Stanley Cup again.

So far, the curse appears to be working.

The collapse of Toronto’s hockey empire

This season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are celebrating their centennial year of existence. Founded in 1917 under the name the ‘Toronto Arenas’, Toronto became one of the first four teams to play in the NHL, along with the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, and a short-lived franchise by the name of the Montreal Wanderers.

In 1918, the NHL team became the first to win a Stanley Cup and, subsequently, a dominant force in the increasingly popular sports league. The Leafs won three championships in a row between 1947–1949 and again between 1962–1964, eventually solidifying their legacy as the team with the second-most Stanley Cup wins behind the Montreal Canadiens.

But the glory days have since concluded.

Following the Leafs’ 1967 Stanley Cup victory, the success of the team crumbled almost instantly. In the 1967–1968 season, the Leafs failed to make a playoff spot for the first time in a decade. The franchise owner at the time — a notoriously grouchy businessman named Harold Ballard — overhauled the management team, fired the coaches despite the players’ wishes, and slowly ostracized star players that refused to comply with Ballard’s low wage offers.

Ballard then left the team after being convicted on 49 counts of fraud, theft, and tax evasion — he was sentenced to serve nine years in the Kingston Penitentiary and Millhaven Institution — but by then he had already caused enough damage to the Leafs’ standing that the remains of the team resembled a pile of rubble.

It’s been 50 years since the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup. In that time, the Montreal Canadiens have won 10 Stanley Cups, and Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s greatest player, has started and finished his career.

Disco has come and gone. Saturn has made an orbit of the sun. Biggie and Tupac have lived and died.

And the Leafs have accomplished nothing. In the last 10 years, they’ve made the playoffs only once.

The irrational optimism of the fanbase

Given the recurring failures of the Toronto franchise, we’re led to wonder how such an underwhelming team continues to attract an abundance of devoted fans. While the Leafs have been pummeled by rivals and eaten alive by mediocre expansion teams, the Air Canada Centre continues to sell out consistently. As successful as the Raptors or the Blue Jays may be, Leafs games remain by far the most lucrative. Why?

In short, the answer resides in the illogical yet unbreakable optimism of Leafs fans, invoked by a sort of recreational purgatory to which the team is seemingly forever confined.

Allow me to explain.

Statistically speaking, the Leafs aren’t the worst of the NHL’s 30 teams. In fact, the Leafs lie somewhere in the middle of the best and the worst. On average, since their playoff run in 2003–2004, the Leafs have placed eleventh out of the 15–16 teams in their conference — not good, but not bad either. The Leafs usually land within one or two spots of making the playoffs, barely missing the cutoff.

This, however, is the worst possible scenario for a hockey team. In the NHL, being statistically mediocre is actually worse than being the worst. This is because, while the teams that perform best in a season are rewarded with a playoff run, the teams that perform worst in a season are rewarded with a better chance of acquiring a first or second round draft pick the following season.

This leaves the teams that finish in the middle struggling the most, as they don’t have a team strong enough to make the playoffs, nor one that’s weak enough to be compensated with better draft picks. In a nutshell, this is why the Leafs keep sucking.

But this is also why Leafs fans are left in a perpetual state of cautious optimism. To be mediocre in the NHL means that the mediocre team must demonstrate at least some strength prior to self-destruction, and it’s that demonstration of strength that gives Leafs fans hope.

This manifests itself in the trajectory of a Leafs season. While the team often performs admirably at the start of any given season — in turn, drumming up support from a rabid fan-base — the Leafs are prone to devolving into infamous, full-blown breakdowns midway through the season.

In turn, the Leafs cope with their losses by entering what’s commonly known in Toronto as a ‘rebuilding year.’ This is where the team rids themselves of their current management and, hopefully, the bad habits they picked up along the way. But the rebuilding years have had little success, as demonstrated by the four coaches and four general managers that the team has let go in the past 10 years.

Nonetheless, the rebuilding years are Leafs fans’ perfect fodder for false optimism. During every year that the team rebuilds, they recruit new household names that give Leafs fans something to talk about. In 2005, it was former star Eric Lindros; in 2006, it was goaltending-hopeful Andrew Raycroft; in 2008, it was General Manager Cliff Fletcher; and in 2009, it was Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Each aforementioned name entered Leafs Nation with extraordinarily high expectations from Leafs fans and each proved incapable of meeting them.

Which brings us to this season.

Like every other season for the past 10 years, the 2016–2017 season has been conveniently labelled a rebuilding year, with much of the same characteristics. Old managers and coaches have been swapped for new ones. The team roster has been remoulded significantly. A first-round draft pick — Auston Matthews — has been added to the lineup along with hometown kid Mitch Marner, the prior year’s fourth round overall draft pick. As usual, Leafs fans have been gifted with a familiar reason for hope.

But perhaps there’s another reason to restore our collective faith in the Leafs.

On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Hillman Hex, Hillman was asked if he would ever lift the curse he had burdened his former team with so many years ago. Hillman, who by then had ample time to cool off, said yes, but not yet. Only after 50 years, he said, would the curse be lifted officially.

This year, we celebrate 50 years of the Hillman Hex.

Aliens ex machina

I worship at the altar of primary sources, Margaret MacMillan writes my dogma, and libraries are my churches.

As a U of T student, studying of history and political science has become my religion. People are always looking for an explanation of life’s greatest mysteries, and when they find a set of beliefs that gives them the correct answers, it becomes all-consuming. We take for granted that our doctrine based on centuries of study is accepted as legitimate in our society. Some are not as lucky.

I was first introduced to Ancient Aliens — a cult television show that makes the rather outrageous attempt to explain historical events as products of alien interactions — in the eleventh grade. My history teacher thought it would be entertaining to begin a semester of ancient history by showing us an early episode. When the bell rang, I walked straight to the guidance counsellor’s office and dropped the class.

Even if you haven’t seen Ancient Aliens, you’ve probably seen the meme of a man passionately waving his hands with the word ‘aliens’ written underneath. That man’s name is Giorgio Tsoukalos, one of the original hosts of the series. He and his colleagues have been on the air for seven years, having wrapped up the eleventh season of Ancient Aliens last fall.

I avoided the show for years, until two weeks ago, when I decided to investigate how people could buy into the show’s conspiracies by embarking on the frustrating task of actually watching it. I made it through half an episode before I began to loudly argue with the hosts. I paused the show every 10 minutes to look up a Wikipedia article with an urge to prove the theories wrong. These so-called historians were challenging everything that I had studied for over four years, and even though they couldn’t hear me, I made sure to voice my arguments and include an adequate number of sources.

Over the course of 119 episodes, every historical question or mystery is explained by a bogus theory of aliens meeting humans and providing them with technology to help accomplish monumental tasks.
For example, according to theorists on the show, the Pyramids of Giza were built with the help of aliens that cut stone blocks, while Machu Picchu was built using an alien forge that could melt rock.

For the uninitiated, Ancient Aliens begins rather innocently, showcasing the mysteries that surround some of the ancient wonders of the world. But the show quickly descends into madness and by Season 2, Episode 5, “Aliens and the Third Reich”, pseudoscientists tout theories of collaboration between the Nazi regime and aliens through Adolf Hitler’s supposed use of alien technology. One Ancient Aliens contributor, Henry Stevens, even published a book on alleged Nazi development of flying saucers, aptly titled Hitler’s Flying Saucers — a book which permanently altered both my faith in humanity and

As a history student, I have no desire to watch a so-called ‘documentary’ that claims to upend the thinking of “mainstream archaeologists.” But fans of Ancient Aliens are far from few. Millions have watched the show and each episode can be streamed online, free of charge. There are also sizeable online communities that discuss both old and new evidence of the influence of extraterrestrials, hosted by a range of so-called experts.

While ‘Aliens!’ is undoubtedly not the best answer to big, historical questions, it is possible to understand Tsoukalos’ and his colleagues’ perspectives. There are incredible ancient structures that have inspired awe and raised questions of how they were used and built without the technological advances that we enjoy today. It wouldn’t be the first time that a community of people celebrated the wisdom conferred onto them by cosmic beings.

It is astonishing how easily the followers of ancient alien theories adopt a set of beliefs that willingly disregard the presence of proof. Indeed, it is strange that long passages of the Great Pyramids are coated in salt, but that does not mean the pyramids were built as a power plant that converted hydrogen into microwave energy like the show suggests. In an age of ‘alternative facts’ and derision of the ‘mainstream media,’ the culture that surrounds fringe theories and pseudoscience are all the more obvious and worrisome.

Near the end of my Ancient Aliens binge, a couple of friends joined me to watch an episode. They sat in stunned silence as I tried to keep the eye-rolling to a minimum. As a former jet propulsion scientist described how Nazis created a wormhole to escape justice at the end of World War II, one of my friends asked incredulously, “Do they believe their own bullshit?”

“I think so,” I replied. And if so, should we judge them for it? 

Degrees of reality

As university students, we are faced with the difficult task of planning the rest of our lives. Though Canada and the United States have typically been fairly stable countries where conditions are predictable enough to give us confidence in our plans, the current political climate is throwing all of that up into the air.

With ripple effects from the election of President Donald Trump extending north of the border, we are heading towards a future full of environmental and political uncertainty. This is not the least because of the increasing influence of ‘post-truth’ politics around the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) named ‘post-truth’ the 2016 word of the year, due to spikes in its usage surrounding the US election and the UK Brexit vote. The OED defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to opinion and personal belief.” It is not a stretch to say that, by this definition, post-truth circumstances are commonplace now.

In a post-truth climate, the task of making wise, personal decisions seems simultaneously more pressing and difficult than it might otherwise be. Prior to the post-truth era, a university degree may have been understood as a vessel by which to gain requisite knowledge for a particular career. While this may still be the case, the value of higher education may now centre around gaining critical capacity to make sense of divergent accounts of the truth in addition to objective knowledge.

The consequences of falling prey to faulty information in a post-truth world range widely from professional blunders to health and safety risks. To mitigate these effects, it is contingent upon responsible citizens not only to seek out various sources of information, but also to critically discern salient information and analysis from politically loaded rhetoric.


The anti-vaccine movement in the US provides one early example of post-truth ideology having a real world influence. Catapulted into the mainstream by celebrity and mother Jenny McCarthy, anti-vaccine sentiment has taken hold across the continent.

Proponents of anti-vaccine beliefs claim that essential vaccinations cause autism in children. These claims have been widely debunked by medical professionals. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control published in USA Today, parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children has led to outbreaks of preventable diseases like whooping cough and measles.

Once parents start down the anti-vaccine path, they are often caught up in a web of false information that reinforces their beliefs. Blogger Megan Sandlin, a former member of the anti-vaccination community, writes of her experience as a science-skeptic parent and her eventual decision to vaccinate her daughters.

“In the end, I couldn’t continue to deny the science. It’s hard to believe now how easily I bought into everything I was hearing from the anti-vaccine crowd,” she explained. Sandlin counts herself and her daughters as lucky, because her skepticism led her to seek out views that contrasted those of her anti-vaccine friends.

There are a number of ways that skepticism may be viewed as an asset in a post-truth world. One is the opportunity for productive dialogue resulting from divergent viewpoints.

In the case of the anti-vaccine example, we may look to the role that the doctor-patient relationship may play in increasing patient understanding. Second-year medical student William Wu said, “It is important for the parents to obtain the correct information, and also to understand the gravity of the risks regarding anti-vaccination.”

Though ‘anti-vaxxers’ may eschew medical attention entirely, doctors have an important role to play in exerting a gentle influence whenever they can in broadening patients’ minds. When patients arrive at the doctor with preconceived notions of the dangers of vaccines — or for that matter any other inexpertly developed medical opinion — that would be an opportunity for elucidative dialogue.

According to Wu, this shift towards more dialogic clinical relationships may not be entirely negative. “Doctors may not have the authoritative powers they once had, but our current role provides us with the fantastic opportunity to aid patients in a way that they feel best suits them while working as a team,” he explained.

In some cases, a more collaborative relationship between patients and care practitioners may expose failures within healthcare that have long been ignored due to the longstanding reverence of medicine as an objective field.

For example, there is a long history of Euro-Western medicine being used to control and marginalize non-white communities. Françoise Verges, Consulting Professor at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of London, explained how the French used psychiatry to pathologize the Creole population of French Réunion Island and delegitimize their culture. This is just one of many instances in which colonizers have cloaked violent motives in discourses of ‘curing’ the target population of their supposed dysfunction by making them conform to the norms of white society.

Stepping away from this relationship of domination may be seen as a positive thing, but it should not diminish the expertise that doctors have on healthcare matters, which is based on scientific evidence.

Wu noted, “I personally believe it is healthy for people and patients to challenge what we know, because this creates opportunities to improve and clarify our own understanding. However, if a movement is based upon falsified and previously rejected research, then it becomes difficult to constructively progress. We will forever focus on a circular argument regarding falsified data instead of looking at new studies that provide evidence.”

It is important for doctors and patients alike to critically reflect on all the available information, not just circle back to ideas that align with what they already think.

Political lies

Confirmation bias has implications outside of the medical community as well. People are naturally inclined to search out information that supports their beliefs, and there is growing buzz about how social media’s algorithm-curated feeds contribute to the problem. During the heated US election season, The Guardian conducted a small experiment in which people with opposing political views swapped feeds.

The things people saw when they stepped outside of their own Facebook bubble shocked them. For Alfonso Pines, a Black union organizer from Georgia, the stark racism of the right was jarring. “It’s just a racist kind of thing, and I don’t think it’s cleverly disguised,” he told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, those on the right, like Trent Loos from Nebraska, didn’t find liberal views convincing at all. “Instead of luring me in, it pushed me away,” he said of the left’s relentless support for Hillary Clinton.

The polarization between the left and the right now leads not only to differing opinions, but also to divergent narratives of what is true. Politicians such as Trump have been quick to capitalize on this confusion, discrediting the media and scientists in bids to define people’s understanding of reality.

Satirical sources such as the Journal of Alternative Facts ridicule the Trump administration’s manipulation of information. Even the title is a jab, adopting White House Counselor and former Trump Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term ‘alternative facts.’ Boasting articles such as “Reduced Access to Contraception Reduces Abortions” by Amaleauthor, I.A. and “Quantifying Crowd Size with Empirical Data: A Wishful Thinking Approach” by the United States Press Secretary Sean Spicer, this journal of fake facts lends a lighthearted tone to a serious problem.

The Trump administration’s attitude towards the media falls in line with that of other repressive regimes around the globe. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star interviewed journalists from Venezuela and Turkey, all of whom expressed their concern about the current pattern in the US.

According to Phillip Gunson, a Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Caracas, Venezuela, it is a common trend among populist leaders to constantly reframe situations until “even those who don’t necessarily believe the government no longer have a firm grip on reality.”

Oftentimes, the ways that Trump reframes situations serve racist or Islamophobic ends. For example, one of Trump’s first executive orders as president was to ban entry into the US for people from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

The administration is trying to frame this as a national security policy, protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. On February 1, Trump tweeted, “Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!”

In his tweet, Trump labels everyone from these nations “bad.” Far from being an evidence-based conclusion, this is a clear example of using post-truth rhetoric to advance a xenophobic and Islamophobic policy.

Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau certainly stays far away from Trump’s aggressive anti-media rhetoric, Canada has its own brand of alternative facts. In the wake of Trump’s executive order on immigration, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength

However, as Harsha Walia, author of Undoing Border Imperialism noted, a mere three days earlier, Canada reached its goal of admitting 10,000 refugees and quietly announced that “applications received after reaching the limit [would] be returned.”

When the apparent sentiments behind Trudeau’s statements as a national leader are not reflected in government action, it should be a cause for concern.

The future of belief

Post-truth politics pose an array of risks: both blatant and insidious in nature. Critical engagement will play a major role in countering this trend. To this end, it is useful — if disheartening — to consider the role of university education in the post-truth era.

What is the role of empirical research when politicians are able to publish alternative facts on Twitter in order to drum up support for their actions? Will professional degrees still command the same degree of respect if false claims to expertise are widely accepted?

The answers to these questions are unclear and up for negotiation. It seems clear though, that if we want substantiated information to retain its worth, we are going to have to fight for it.

Being in university means we all have some degree of privilege. Regardless of identity and background, we have opportunities to access knowledge because of our position within this institution.

With this privilege comes the responsibility to stand up to politicians’ attempts to manipulate reality. This does not mean that university-education professionals have a monopoly on truth though, or that we should parade around saving people from their ‘ignorance.’

As we move forward, it is crucial for us to interrogate our own beliefs and values, making sure that our claims to credibility are in line with the kind of world that we want to see.